How to generate ideas out of chaos

German illustrator and graphic designer Angela Otto explains how ideas can arrive in a puff of smoke.

Generate ideas out of chaos

Angela Otto finished piece, creating order from chaos

My illustrations are usually based on coffee, tea, juice and paint splotches. These chaotic patterns provide my brain with the basic material to illustrate fantastic animals, weird creatures and surreal scenes. It's like seeing faces in the clouds – we all remember doing that as a kid – or figures in the famous Rorschach experiments.

Psychologists have a term for this ability of the brain to detect meaning and form in meaningless, even chaotic context: apophenia. I've channelled this ability into my drawings and paintings, using traditional tools.

I start by preparing my paper or canvas with random coffee drops or paint drippings until the pattern reaches a certain depth. The motifs that I find in the structures are then extracted from the texture by drawing with coloured ink. Although they're often carefully worked out in detail, the pictures always provide a wide range for interpretation, different approaches and scope for the viewer to "see more".

When the editor of ImagineFX dropped me a line to see if I could recreate my painting technique using digital tools instead of the various splotches and ink that I usually work with, I jumped at the chance. So I started to play with some digital brushes to create a visually stimulating background. Let's see what appeared on my canvas...

A face in the clouds

Generate ideas out of chaos

Use a random brush and see what happens

I choose a random smoke brush from a free brush set at Photoshop Tutorials and start messing around. After a while I notice a little creature or face that's upside down, which I extract and start to rearrange. Its appearance pleases me, so I look to see how I can push it further.

Hidden art

Generate ideas out of chaos

Smoking out an image

I set up a new background based on a paper texture and use my smoke brushes to create an interesting background structure with smooth lines, a liquid feel and fluid forms. This should give the viewer the opportunity to uncover figures and objects in my art.

A smoky figure

Generate ideas out of chaos

A figure in the smoke

I focus on a cartoon-like figure who's wearing a cap and smoking a cigarette, and start bringing out what I see until it’s clearly visible. While doing this, other characters' eyes, faces and beaks pop up in the texture. I keep painting to distinguish my figure from the background, and add some details.

Words: Angela Otto

Angela Otto is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 104.

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